The Metabolic Plan; Stay Younger Longer
By Stephen Cherniske, M.S.
An amazing thing happens as wegrow older. I'm not talking about the appearance of gray hair, expanding waistlines, and a sudden fondness for La-Z-Boy furniture. Far more amazing is the shift in our perceptions and priorities. One day, we are happily oblivious to our own mortality, and then wham, we turn forty and suddenly realize that the fun and games do not go on forever. Then - and this is even more dramatic - we turn fifty, and double wham, we're griped by the sense that:
1. Our life is more than half over.
2. The half that's over was the fun part.
3. The rest will include progressive disability, degeneration, and decrepitude - in other words, pain and suffering.
These realizations have nothing to do with where you live, how smart you are, or what kind of work you do. They are visceral awakenings that happen on some kind of cosmic schedule. What's more, you cannot explain them to your children or your thirty-year-old colleagues. Again, its not about intelligence or sensitivity; they simply cannot feel these feelings.
Feelings, of course, do not evaporate. They bring us somewhere. Feelings about mortality commonly lead to one or more of the three Rs: religion, resignation, or research. As a scientist, I naturally gravitate to research; in fact, I have long applied myself fervently to the study of aging, and I was lucky: I was in the right place at the right time. In fact, for baby boomers, that's been the story of our lives. We've seen more change than any generation in history, and the change has been remarkably favorable.
When we baby boomers were born, life expectancy in the United Stales was sixty-five years. Today, its pushing seventy-seven, but that mark hasn't budged in the last decade and a half. What this means is that we've achieved as much benefit as we could squeeze out of advances in sanitation, decreased infant mortality, vaccinations, and antibiotics. In order to get beyond the seventy-seven mark, we're going to need dramatic new developments, but I'm not referring to genetic engineering. We've all seen news stories in which some white-coated geneticist proclaims that a life span of two hundred years or more is "just around the corner." Don't hold your breath.
I'm a biochemist, so you might think this is just professional jealousy, but I have some sobering facts for you. Genetic engineering has successfully extended only the lives of fruit flies and worms. Genetically, these are very simple organisms. You are an incredibly complex organism with (at last count) close to one hundred thousand genes. For nearly two decades, optimistic scientists have been making predictions about the eradication of genetic diseases. In some cases, like cystic fibrosis and Downs syndrome, they have even identified the specific gene that causes the problem, and yet these diseases continue to afflict us at the same - or in some cases, increasing - rates. Type-1 diabetes, sickle-cell disease, cystic fibrosis, Down's syndrome, Parkinson's disease, and certain types of cancer are well-known genetic disorders. As of this writing, more than two thousand patients have been treated with gene therapy, and not a single person has been cured.
The problems, although massive, are certainly not insurmountable. It's just going to take much longer than anyone imagined. Part of the problem is that genes never work alone. Most cell functions are bewildering and complex chain reactions, so the exact point in the chain of molecular events that causes a disease is not known. It's like a detective arriving at the scene of a crime. There may be evidence everywhere - fingerprints, blood, worn clothing, a weapon - but none of it guarantees that the crime will ever be solved.
Still, the media hypes genetic engineering because the stories sell. I understand the appeal: a genetic fix would enable us to continue to eat the standard American diet (aptly abbreviated SAD), become unfit and overweight, watch 3.5 hours of television every day (the national average), and then, when faced with the terrifying degeneration of aging, simply get our genes tweaked and everything would be all right.
But these are misleading, pie-in-the-sky ideas. Imagine the commander of an army, facing overwhelming odds as the enemy assembles on the opposite ridge. He knows that in the morning he will lead his forces into battle. How should he spend the night?
If you're counting on a genetic or pharmaceutical fix, you are like the commander who does nothing, betting everything on reinforcements' arriving in time. Right now, you face overwhelming odds in your war with time. I urge you to take stock of your situation and, with the help of this book, develop a battle plan. In your camp, there are soldiers with astounding skill, experience, and courage. This army is your immune system. You also have a strategical genius, your mind, and a secret weapon, which I will describe in the following pages. If you are willing, you can win. The fundamental question is this:
What should you do right now?
I'm a late bloomer. It's likely that I'll be in my late seventies when it's time to walk my daughter down the aisle, and I have no intention of doing that in a wheelchair. In fact, I plan to dance at her wedding with the same enthusiasm and energy that I enjoy today. The path for baby boomers like me is thus clearly marked. We must take every prudent step to slow the aging process so that if and when a biotech solution is perfected, we will have a body worth keeping, I cannot think of a more painful situation than seeing the anti-aging breakthrough of the century arrive, only to be told that I am too old or too feeble to benefit from the therapy.
Anti-aging is a new science, and in any new endeavor, you need a reliable map and a guide who has actually been where you wish to go. My journey on the anti-aging trail has taken me to six continents - from the halls of UCLA, where I taught clinical nutrition for a health consultant training program, to the interior of Papua New Guinea, where I examined the diets of hunters and gatherers. I directed the nations first FDA-licensed clinical laboratory specializing in nutrition testing and a few years later found myself trekking across Nepal studying rare high-altitude botanicals. I've been an adviser to members of the U.S. Olympic team and served on the faculty of the American College of Sports Medicine - and all the while, I was studying aging. Every fact I gathered from the lab or the forest, every second shaved off an athletes marathon time, provided critical pieces in a stunning puzzle.
It turns out that aging is closely related to human performance, whether that be throwing a discus or a spear, lifting barbells or boulders. In fact, research shows that a major factor in longevity - and more important, your quality of life - is muscle mass. Muscles on your arms appear to be more important than money in your bank. But before you run out to the gym, I should advise you that muscle mass is controlled by something other than time spent lifting weights, and that is your metabolism.
This should be good news to millions of Americans who have made valiant efforts to "get back in shape," only to find that exercise made them feel miserable and sore. After all, who wants to do something three or more times a week that they don't enjoy? And yet the message inherent in advertising slogans like "Just do it" or in the advice of your doctor to "Just get off the couch" is that failing to maintain a high muscle mass is all your fault. Let me make this clear. It's not willpower. It's biochemistry, and you can change that.
You maybe thinking, "Wait a minute. Loss of muscle mass isn't everything. There are dozens of degenerative changes that occur with aging. We accumulate fat, we lose immune strength, our skin gets dry and thin, we get wrinkles and lines, we experience memory loss and joint pain . . . "Yes, all of that is true -and all of these changes are related to metabolism. The Metabolic Plan provides a step-by-step course of action, a metabolic "tune-up" that can dramatically improve the way you look and feel.
The Metabolic Plan is a doorway into a new paradigm. We see all around us glimpses of new possibilities. Jack La Lanne and Bob Detmontique (both in their mid-eighties) are more fit than most thirty-year-olds. At eighty-seven, Albert Morrow ran the two hundred meter in under forty seconds, and Marjorie Newlin won her twenty-fifth body-building contest... at age seventy-eight. Both men's and women's participation in the Senior Olympics is growing by more than 50 percent every year, and on September 24, 2004, a remarkable event will take place: Sophia Loren will celebrate her seventieth birthday.
Futurist and trend watcher Faith Popcorn recently observed that age fifty is now a point of rebirth for millions of Americans. The question is, will you be able to enjoy this new golden age of longevity, or will it merely extend a period of decrepitude and chronic illness? Again, the answer depends on your metabolism.
The Metabolic Model Of Aging
Draw a horizontal line, on paper or in your mind. At the left end, write birth. At the right end, put death. Right now, you're somewhere between those two points, but the question is, where? Just about everyone answers that question with a number. They say, "I'm forty-five years old." and assume that this is the most meaningful way to indicate one's age. Wrong! Here's how I know.
I was sitting in a physiology course when the professor put a slide on the screen of two women born in the same month of the same year. Yet everyone was shocked to see that they looked like mother and daughter. At that point, it became perfectly clear to me that ones date of birth is not an accurate way to measure aging. What is?
Well, at the same time that years are passing (the chronology of aging), something else is happening. That something might be called the biology of aging. And as the slide of the two women illustrates, the biology of aging is by far the more important factor. Understanding this became my quest.
You see, the professor used this slide to illustrate that people age at different rates, but he had no idea why. In fact, he spent the rest of the class discussing the problems of the older-looking woman. That, after all, is the focus of conventional medicine: "Find a problem and fix it." But I wanted to study the younger-looking woman to discover what she was doing right. I remember writing in my notebook:
Goal: Identify the factors that determine one's rate of aging.
Twenty years later, this came into clear focus. Scores of scientific studies pointed to metabolism, not genetics, as the primary factor that influences how fast we age. The theory, now known as the metabolic model of aging, identifies two general forces at work in the human body. Anabolic metabolism is the rebuild, repair, and restore activity of your body. Catabolic activity refers to breakdown and degeneration. (When you see the word catabolic, think catastrophic.) At every stage of life, your health is determined by the ratio of damage to repair.
My young son broke his leg and was in a cast for just three weeks. His rapid healing was accomplished by the remarkably anabolic metabolism we all enjoyed as children. On the other hand, if my eighty-five-year-old mother broke her hip, she would heal very slowly, and perhaps not at all. We know that 40 percent of elderly hip fracture patients require lifelong care. Twenty percent never leave the hospital after the injury. That's because they lack the anabolic drive that is required to heal the bone and connective tissue.
The greater your anabolic drive - your ability to rapidly and efficiently repair and rebuild your tissues - the slower your body ages. And if this were all there was to the metabolic model, it would be interesting in an academic sense. If metabolism were just a matter of "good genes," this would be a very short book. We now know, however, from studies with identical twins, that only about 35 percent of the aging process is genetic. That means 65 percent is in your hands - literally. Anti-aging is possible because metabolism can be changed.
Think of the remarkable shift that this creates in the way we experience life. If you just look at chronology, aging can only be de pressing because nothing can be done about it. Every time the earth circles the sun, we are all a year older. But the biology of aging - the metabolic model - makes chronological age almost irrelevant. It no longer matters how many candles were on your last cake. By supporting anabolic repair and reducing catabolic damage, you can not only slow your rate of aging but even reverse much of the damage that has already taken place. You can, in other words, grow biologically younger.
Restoring youthful anabolic drive is done essentially by resetting the time signals that determine how your brain and body interact. These signals, originating from a variety of tissues and organs, are sent to the brain, which acts as a data analysis and command center. The brain, in effect, constantly polls the body for information about how the entire organism is performing. This information helps the brain run things at maximum efficiency.
If muscle mass and physical activity are low, for example, the brain assumes that very little energy is required to maintain that system. Consequently, when the brain hears that the stomach has received eight hundred calories (the average dinner), its instructions to the gastrointestinal tract and liver are: "Convert those calories to fat." If, on the other hand, muscle mass is maintained and those muscles are used through regular exercise, the brains instructions are: "Convert those calories to energy."
The significance of such a dialogue is obvious, in terms of health, fitness, and longevity. The Metabolic Plan will explain how this body-mind conversation affects the balance of anabolic and catabolic forces. Importantly, this is not a simplistic view of physiology. The above muscle-stomach-brain dialogue, for example, can be quantified by measuring hormone signals from insulin, cholecystokinin, fatty acid oxidase, carnitine palmitoyltransferase, acyl-CoA dehydrogenase, and lipoprotein lipase. Because you probably don't want that level of detail, I'm going to be translating biochemicalese into English to provide an enjoyable lesson in how the human body functions and, more important, to show you how to maximize your health and wellness.
Mother Nature's Game
Beyond determining the metabolic fate of dinner, the brain needs lo know how old we are so that it can most effectively control the vast array of hormones and biochemicals relating to growth, repair, sex, immunity, and energy. This dialogue is the primary factor that determines how we age and when we die. The body-mind communications that foster optimal health and maximum life span are known as longevity signals. When the brain receives longevity signals from the body, it, in turn, sends anabolic (rebuild, repair, restore) instructions to the cells, tissues, and organs. On the other hand, if the brain receives over-the-hill signals from the body, it responds with catabolic (wear down, tear down, break down) instructions.
You may be asking why. Everyone asks that. You see, life is a game, and it's Mother Natures game, not ours. Also, this game is much different from the ones most of us are used to. In the games we've invented (sports, education, careers), you first learn the rules, then the fundamentals, and finally strategies for winning. We're so used to doing this that we often think everything works this way. Then, one day, you look in the mirror and notice that your hair is thinning, there are deep lines in your face, you don't have the energy or drive you once had, and then it hits you - that there is another game being played here.
Remember that the name of the game is survival. Not your survival, but survival of the species. The flowers that bloom today will die tomorrow, contributing nitrogen and carbon to the soil and thereby supporting thousands of soil-dwelling species. They, in turn, support the growth of plants, which create oxygen, which supports millions of species. All thinking persons at one time or another have marveled at the astoundingly beautiful and unbelievably complex cycle of life.
The problem is that most people fail to understand that they are part of the cycle. We think we're different because we own computers, drive cars, walk on the moon, and talk on cell phones. But Mother Nature couldn't care less about technology. She's into survival - the really basic motivation that hasn't changed in millions of years.
This is perhaps the hardest thing for most people to grasp, but we know that the genes that control every cell in our bodies haven't changed a fraction of 1 percent in more than thirty thousand years.